In an exclusive interview with the Mid-Ulster Mail, Martin McGuinness reminisces on his time as Mid-Ulster MP, the challenges of his role in the constituency and why he would not be Deputy First Minister if he hadn’t of been elected in Mid-Ulster.
By Patricia Devlin
IT is unlikely there will ever be another MP who will enjoy a political career as colourful as Martin McGuinness’.
Elected in Mid-Ulster three years after the IRA ceasefire, and a year before the Good Friday Agreement, he has been at the helm of the Northern Ireland peace process for over 15 years.
He has negotiated with British Prime Ministers, gone into government with his most bitter enemy, and shook the hand of the Royal Monarch once considered a prime target for the paramilitary organisation he was Chief of Staff for.
On January 2nd this year, he signed off a letter to Chancellor George Osborne that signalled the end of an era for Mid-Ulster, and his career as MP.
“One of the most interesting elections I have ever fought was the very first election that I stood in, in Mid-Ulster. I have never forgotten it, and I never will,” he told the Mail.
“I remember travelling around every town land and trying to get to every single door, up very long lanes and canvassing to very late at night.
“Quite a percentage thought that the seat wasn’t winnable because it had been tried before, and because there had been narrow losses in the past, in other occasions there were very substantial losses because of the divided vote.
“And I had a real engagement with the people of the constituency, I told them, that I believe there was a change in political situation, that the IRA ceasefire in 1994 had changed the ball game completely, that I also believed there would be a change of government in London, that there would be a new government led by Tony Blair and Mo Mowlam.
“That in my view because we had done work with the Labour party that would represent a real opportunity to get a peace agreement and to the forefront of my mind was to be very, very conscious that all of the people of Mid-Ulster, no matter what their political persuasion or religious beliefs, had suffered from the conflict.
“And I was making a pledge to them that I was determined to bring that conflict to an end and so the people came out in huge numbers and I, against all the odds, won the seat by 1800 votes,” he said.
To Mid-Ulster and beyond
Taking the seat from the DUP’s Willie McCrea was seen as a huge victory for nationalists and republicans in the constituency, so much so that Mr McGuinness’’ election as seen as a catalyst for Sinn Fein sowing it’s roots across the province.
“It was clear to me from speaking to the people of Mid-Ulster that they were very tuned in.
“They were very political and they were very willing to seize the opportunity to make their contribution to the peace process, albeit it being a peace process in it’s very early stages.
“And I think that had a very dramatic impact on the peace process, it certainly had a dramatic impact on constituencies like West Tyrone where Pat Dorrity later emerged as MP, Fermanagh and South Tyrone where Michelle Gildernew emerged as the MP and Newry and Armagh where Conor Murphy emerged as the MP.
“I give credit to the people of Mid-Ulster for having accomplished that and by voting for me, then made it possible for people in other constituencies to recognise that voting for Sinn Fein could bring change, not just in terms of recognising the constituency but in terms of bringing peace which I believed at that time was a passionate objective of mine, but I also believed that it was passionate desire of the people of Mid-Ulster.”
The Deputy First Minister says he is in no doubt at what the highlight of his time in Mid-Ulster has been.
“It has to be the success of the peace process,” he said.
“The peace process is considered as the most successful peace process in the world today and because I was elected by the people of Mid-Ulster as the MP, in 1997, within a month of that I led a Sinn Fein delegation to South Africa with other parties, Peter Robinson led the DUP delegation, David Trimble led the Ulster Unionists and Mark Durkan led the SDLP, where we met with Nelson Mandela and learned many important lessons about peace negotiations.
“I was then obviously entrusted by the party to be the chief negotiator in the Good Friday negotiations and obviously it was because the people of Mid-Ulster put me in such a prominent political position that I was able to engage and work on vital negotiations that I believe have changed for the better the history of the north of Ireland and the island of Ireland forever and for good.”
The challenges? The building of those personal, political relationships that have dominated the headlines since the powersharing agreement in 2007.
“Of course the first meeting between Ian Paisley was historically of huge importance, whenever it was certain that he and I were going to be First and Deputy First Minister.
“He said a very significant thing, which gave me an insight into Ian Paisley, he said ‘you know Martin, we can rule ourselves, we don’t need these people coming over from England, telling us what to do,’ and I immediately said to myself, ‘well that’s common ground that you and I can stand on’.
“So for a year I had a very good working relationship with Ian Paisley, albeit he was coming to the end of his time as leader of the DUP and First Minister, and of course people then described us as the ‘Chuckle Brothers’, christened that by a member of the Ulster Unionist party who thought it would demean us, in fact people liked it.”
One of the most defining moments of those personal relationships happened in June 2012, just weeks after Martin McGuinness outlined his intention to step down from his MP role.
He says even at the height of his powersharing role with Ian Paisley, shaking the hand of Queen Elizabeth never entered his mind.
“Back in those days I never contemplated even taking a decision on shaking Queen Elizabeth’s hand, but when I did that, I took a very conscious decision to do it as an act of friendship to those who had an allegiance to her In the north of Ireland.
“I think that recognising that things are constantly changing and showing unionists what a United Ireland, or a reunified Ireland would look like I think it is important that we continue to make gestures that make people feel comfortable that moving forward in a shared way, particularly trying to develop an all island economy, is making economic sense for us both north and south.”
Although standing down from Mid-Ulster as an MP, the Deputy First Minister says he will not be standing down from the constituency.
“Some people had that false impression,” he says. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
“I will be as proud and honoured to continue on as a humble MLA for Mid-Ulster and as Deputy First Minister because I am very committed to the constituency and very committed to the people of South Derry and East Tyrone who have supported me through thick and thin over the course of the last 15 years.
“I have a great affinity with the people of South Derry and East Tyrone and I am very conscious that I would not be Deputy First Minister or even as many people describe it, joint First Minister, on the basis of equality with Peter Robinson, had it not been for the support I received from Mid-Ulster.”